SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Candidates yesterday frenetically pursued the crown of a state proud of its reputation as GOP kingmaker as voters prepared to cast ballots in the first-in-the-South Republican primary today.
"There's a lot on the line tomorrow. The direction of our country, in many ways, may be decided tomorrow in South Carolina," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, flattering a crowd of several hundred at Wofford College, yesterday. "We want to win here tomorrow. We don't just want to do well, we want to win."
His sentiment was shared by at least two rivals: Sen. John McCain, who had a narrow edge in late polling, and former Sen. Fred Thompson, who, braving tougher odds, has placed a big bet on this state.
The stakes were somewhat lower for other contenders.
South Carolina's Democratic primary is next Saturday.
Mr. Huckabee praised the economic stimulus package that had just been proposed by President Bush. Sounding the populist notes common to his campaign, he bemoaned rising unemployment, which he blamed on failures in trade policy by the federal government, and said he could identify with such economic casualties because of his own modest upbringing.
A few miles away, Mr. Thompson courted votes in a crowded restaurant, painting himself as the true conservative in the race, while pressing the hot button of immigration to assail the credentials of Mr. Huckabee, whom he painted as a born-again convert to the cause of a secure border.
"Some say to defeat the Democrats, we need to be more like the Democrats," Mr. Thompson said. "I reject that with every fiber of my being."
Mr. Thompson offered a cautious welcome to the President's stimulus proposal but he coupled it with a warning against using it as a vehicle for "liberal spending."
"We need to not rush in with boatloads of money," he said.
Those rival campaign stops were in the center of the state's greatest concentration of Evangelical Christians, a dominant voting bloc in the GOP primary. But the candidates fanned out all over the state making their closing arguments to as many voters as possible.
Mr. McCain traveled from Florence, in the state's northeast, to the Charleston area, with its heavy concentration of active and retired military, and on to the vacation and retiree Mecca of Hilton Head.
As he has throughout the primary season, Mr. McCain cited his national security credentials.
"If we had done what the Democrats wanted to do six months ago and withdrawn from Iraq, al-Qaeda would be telling the world that they had defeated the United States of America," Mr. McCain said.
The home-stretch campaigning took place amid polls that continued to suggest a close race with a persistent bloc of undecided voters.
One survey, conducted by Mason Dixon Polling & Research, showed Mr. McCain with a narrow lead over Mr. Huckabee, 27 percent to 25 percent.
They were followed by Mr. Romney, at 15 percent, and Mr. Thompson at 13 percent. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas had 6 percent, just ahead of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani with 5 percent.
The winner of the primary here will receive a major boost as the field moves on to Florida and beyond. The resulting momentum and money would be vital to any winner, but particularly to Mr. Thompson, who, still in search of a win, has drawn "a line in the sand in South Carolina," in the words of his press aide, Jeff Sadosky.
The former Tennessee senator had a respectable but little noted third-place finish in Iowa, and barely competed in New Hampshire. Another also-ran finish today would make it difficult for his campaign to move on.
Mr. Giuliani has largely skipped the early primaries to concentrate on Florida's Jan. 29 contest.
Mr. Romney, who took the laurels in Michigan on Tuesday, did a midweek victory lap around South Carolina, but then headed off to Nevada, where he is the only Republican to have fielded a sophisticated organization for the caucuses today.
In Nevada's Democratic caucus today, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton are pushing hard for a victory.
A Mason-Dixon poll released yesterday gave Mrs. Clinton a 9-point lead here, 41 to 32 percent, while former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina received 14 percent. Ten percent were undecided.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole is a staff writer at the Post-Gazette.
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